By Mary Hladky

How can downtown Boca Raton become more enticing and vibrant, and what should be part of a new plan for a city government campus?

When the city’s Community Advisory Panel asked residents to offer their input at a Jan. 18 “community conversation,” they packed the Downtown Library meeting room.

“I’m thrilled to see such a turnout,” said Linda Marenus, advisory panel chair.

The panel’s board will meet on Feb. 7 to create a presentation on residents’ ideas that will go to the City Council to help guide its decision-making on how to improve the downtown and the adjacent government campus, she said.

Council members attending the session were equally pleased that so many residents attended.

“This is more than I expected,” said City Council member Fran Nachlas. “I am happy so many people are participating in this discussion.”

“The success here is that the community is engaged in their own future,” said City Council member and Community Redevelopment Agency Chair Marc Wigder.

The meeting follows a City Council decision last fall to revive long dormant plans to improve the government campus on 30 city-owned acres north of West Palmetto Park Road between Dixie Highway and Crawford Boulevard where City Hall, the Police Department, a community center and the Downtown Library now stand.

While the library is relatively new, the other buildings are old and deteriorating.

A consultant submitted two options for a new government hub in 2019, but the projected $200 million cost stunned council members, who said they wanted to find ways to trim the cost. The start of the coronavirus pandemic in 2020 brought the project to a halt.

But the opening of the Brightline station east of the Downtown Library in December 2022 has spurred city officials to revive the idea of a government campus re-do.

They anticipate that the station will prompt redevelopment of the area, presenting an opportunity to use public-private partnerships to do so that potentially could generate funding to defray the cost of a revamped government campus.

A proposed cultural arts complex in Mizner Park, now slated to open in 2028, also is expected to spur redevelopment and interest in the downtown.

Residents were free to offer any suggestion, but to spark ideas, the panel offered lists of possibilities. Residents could affix green or red stickers to the suggestions they liked or disliked.

They were nearly evenly split on adding mixed-use development, but turned an adamant thumbs down on apartment complexes and affordable housing. They also were against a sports arena and convention center.

The addition of public art drew some support, but most residents offered no opinion.

They wanted more tree canopy, native landscaping and a community garden, but opposed electric vehicle charging stations.

Coffee shops, mom-and-pop stores and restaurants got positive nods, but the addition of major retailers and commercial office space were almost universally opposed.

A downtown shuttle service, shared use paths for walking and biking and bike paths with protected lanes got their approval.

The recreation/sports category drew strong resident reaction. A skate park received overwhelming support as users of the existing Tim Huxhold Skate Park near City Hall voiced their opinion loud and clear that a skate park should be part of any planning.

Green space, walking trails, tennis courts and playgrounds won support, but residents split on pickleball courts.

They also wanted a farmer’s market, live music and food truck events.

After affixing the stickers, residents divided into groups to talk with each other about their priorities and then shared them with all attendees.

Although opinions were not uniform, some areas of consensus emerged.

Residents want green space and more trees to improve the ambiance of downtown, better walkability and more and better bike paths. They also want more locally owned and operated retail stores and restaurants that give residents a reason to come downtown.

They don’t want high density or high-rises.

Brightline also was on their minds.

City officials plan to hire consultants to plan a pedestrian bridge that Brightline passengers would use to get to and from the train station and downtown. Several groups strongly endorsed the bridge, but one dissented without explaining why.

Officials are looking for ways to boost the city’s economy by enticing passengers to get off the train and visit stores, restaurants and cultural attractions.

One group suggested restaurant discounts for train passengers. Another idea was having the city partner with Brightline to offer day passes that would reduce the cost of visiting museums and special events in the downtown.

Residents will have additional opportunities to weigh in as planning proceeds.

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